Surveillance and “Dark Sousveillance” in Solomon Northup

In various posts, I ave written about surveillance in African American literature and music in the works of Ernest J. Gaines, Lecrae, and Arna Bontemps. Drawing upon Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon,” Michel Foucault argues that individuals, in various settings, experience surveillance whether they know it or not. As well, that surveillance creates within the subject a feeling of policing him or herself, thus becoming both object and subject in the act. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault posits, “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

Reading Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, I began to notice the myriad references that Northup makes to surveillance and spying throughout the narrative. This did not really come as a shock; however, what stood out was the multitude of times that Northup refers to the act of surveillance whether or not someone is actually watching or not. These moments made me think about the ways that surveillance and power worked in a plantation setting where a person could not obviously see everything occurring on the place at one time.

dark-mattersSimone Browne re-theorizes the panopticon and explores the ways that our modern ideas about surveillance stem from the policing of black bodies during the slave trade and beyond. She also posits the idea of “dark sousveillance,” the concept that looks “at the ways people challenge repressive practices through their own counter-veillance [because] there is some liberatory knowledge in knowing how to subvert [the plantation system], resist or mainly survive within it and live still.” Today, I want to highlight a couple of examples from Northup’s narrative that show both the act of slave masters constant surveillance of enslaved individuals and the “black sousveillance” that Northup and others enact to subvert the constant policing.

Describing his role as driver, Northup talks about not showing leniency when punishing others for fear that Edwin Epps would catch on and punish him harshly. Northup is keenly aware of Epps seemingly omnipresent gaze:

Epps, I soon found, whether actually in the field or not, had his eyes pretty generally upon us. From the piazza, from behind some adjacent tree, or other concealed point of observation, he was perpetually on the watch. If one of us had been backward or idle through the day, we were apt to be told all about it on returning to the quarters, and as it was a matter of principle with him to reprove every offence of that kind that came within his knowledge, the offender not only was certain of receiving a castigation for his tardiness, but I likewise was punished for permitting it.

Epps, no matter his position in the big house or in the fields, can constantly see what his “property” is up to during their work. Even if he is not present behind a tree or on the piazza, the mere thought of his gaze creates a policing of Northup and others.

Northup subverts this constant surveillance through his actions as the driver. Following this description of Epps’ observation and the consequences that arose if he saw someone slacking off, Northup discusses that when he used the whip, under Epps’ distant gaze, he manipulated it such a way that it would not harm the person he was flogging. In this way, his “black sousveillance” acted as a form of resistance and liberation. Northup says he could handle the whip in such a manner that it would provide the appearance of hitting its mark, and if they knew Epps was watching, the driver and the victim would both fool the master into believing that the whip actually inflicted pain. Northup states, “If Epps was observed at a distance, or we had reason to apprehend he was as sneaking somewhere in the vicinity, I would commence plying the lash vigorously, when, according to arrangement, they would squirm and screech as if in agony, although not one of them had in fact been even grazed.”

Unfortunately, Northup and the others enslaved under Epps could not always manipulate the constant surveillance to help protect themselves. Speaking with Aunt Phebe, she informs Northup that Epps plans to sell him to “a tanner ober in de Pine Woods.” Northup expressing his gratefulness at the possibility of leaving Epps: “”I’m glad of it. I’m tired of scraping cotton, and would rather be a tanner. I hope he’ll buy me.” Unbeknownst to Phebe and Northup, Mistress Epps stood “unobserved on the piazza at the time, [and] was listening to [the] conversation.”

Ms. Epps tells her husband about Northup’s words, thus sparking his ire and anger. Epps commences to question Northup about what he said, not believing Northup’s replies. In a rage, Epps administers twenty to thirty lashes upon Northup’s back. While Northup could subvert the “known” gaze of Epps, he could not counter the unobserved surveillance of Ms. Epps and her relaying of his words to Epps himself.

One other occurrence of surveillance involves Armsby, a “poor white” who comes to he Epps plantation and works in the fields with Northup and the others. Northup notes that “[a] white man working in the field is a rare and unusual spectacle on Bayou Boeuf.” He befriends Armsby and contemplates whether or not he should trust the man with mailing a letter for him to acquaintances in New York in hopes of freedom from his bondage. Northup decides to trust Armsby, but it turns out that the white man double crosses Northup and goes directly to Epps with the news that one of his slaves can read and write and seeks to gain his or her freedom.

12-years-a-slave-edwin-pays-solomon-a-visit

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) questioned by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) about his ability to read and write. 

Epps approaches Northup and asks if he knows anything about someone being able to read and write. Northup plays dumb, telling Epps that he doesn’t know anything, eventually convincing Epps that he does not have ink or paper. He also drops a hint into Epps’ brain that Armsby wants something more that a job in the field; he wants to be overseer. Through his answers, Northup diffuses the situation and even turns the tables on Armsby. Being a “poor white,” it would not take much for this to happen.

Each of these scenes, and more, show the constant surveillance that Northup endured. Sometimes he knew when people watched him; other times, he did not. However, he constantly thought and contemplated his actions based on the idea that someone, somewhere, was watching and policing him. He knew how to subvert this gaze, and he did it on numerous occasions, sometimes blatantly in the face of Epps.

The, of course, are not all of the examples in the narrative. What are some that you see? What are some that you see in other Antebellum slave narratives? What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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